6/12/15 A very Confusing Week in Tel Aviv and Israel

by Marc Schulman

Living in Israel -- and particularly in Tel Aviv -- is living in world of contradictions. The news at the beginning of the week started with reports the International cell phone company “Orange” planned  to join the nascent BDS movement and begin a boycott of Israel. For a few days, that was the main topic in the news media;  the government swiftly announced plans to fight the boycott. While both the Israeli right-wing and left-wing are united in their opposition to the BDS movement, they have widely differing views on how to fight it. The right-wing offers two explanations for the spread of BDS (views shared by most members of the current government). The first explanation is that this problem highlights the need for better public relations -- in other words, if people only understood us better, they would not support the BDS efforts.  As for the second explanation, the right-wing sometimes contradicts itself – i.e. when it argues that the whole world hates us regardless of what we do. The left-wing opposition asserts that the best way to fight the boycott is to be more proactive in pursuing negotiations with the Palestinians.

These contrasting views were on display at the annual Herzliya Conference, hosted by the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya this past week. T op ministers in the current government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, explained that the government was doing all it could to pursue peace – while the Palestinians refused to negotiate. Opposition leader MK Yitzhak Herzog stated flatly that if he were Prime Minister, he would put forth a comprehensive plan to fight BDS, a plan that would include diplomatic initiatives. Speaking immediately before Prime Minister Netanyahu, former PM Ehud Barak agreed with MK Yitzhak Herzog that Netanyahu was not doing enough.  Barak opined :

“BDS is a an urgent problem that I have been warning about for years and nothing has been done about it.”  Ehud Barak went on to say that: “Netanyahu is right that there is nothing we can do about some of the extreme members of the BDS movement – who hate just because we are.” Barak continued: “Netanyahu was wrong when it came to most of the world, a country that is ‘working for peace’ will have friends.” The Former Prime Minister further emphasized that BDS is a new form of anti-semitism and one which imposes a double standard. “However, just because BDS operates based on a double standard does not mean we should not act”.

Perhaps the most interesting speech in the conference wasdelivered by Israel’s newly- elected President, Reuven Rivlin. Rivlin, a member of the Likud Revisionist Party (far right-wing) stated that it was time for the country to wake up to the new reality – 50% of the children in first grade (within pre-1967 Israel) come from sectors of the society that do not define themselves as Zionist (i.e. 25% Arab and 25% ultra-Orthodox). As such, it is necessary for the country to redefine itself. President Rivlin claimed that those who failed to acknowledge this reality were not being true Zionists. President Rivlin added that as President, he could not present solutions to these challenges, though he remains responsible for constantly bringing up the questions.

In the midst of this serious discussion on public policy, the media quickly become engulfed in a story more soap opera-like than political. . First, some background: Candidate #30 on the Likud party’s list (a position that no one expected would realistically become a member of Parliament) is held by Oren Hazan (son of a former Likud MK). MK Hazan seemed to be as surprised as anyone else to suddenly find himself a member of Knesset. Despite his unexpected inclusion in the Knesset as the 61st member of the coalition, MK Hazan managed to obtain a number of very prestigious committee appointments – including being named Deputy Speaker of the Knesset.
Earlier in the week Israel’s Channel 2 broadcast an investigative piece showing that Hazan had once operated a c asino in Bulgaria. The exposé also claimed that Oren Hazan allegedly organized prostitutes  and drugs for his Casino guests. Hazan denied the story, in its entirety . Over the course of the next week, however, the evidence grew. As a result, the Speaker of the Knesset told Hazan that until the matter could be resolved, Hazan could not preside over the Knesset. Meanwhile, Hazan received a hero’ s welcome at the meeting of the Likud party’s Central Committee, with members claiming the attacks against Hazan were baseless, and all a part of a left-wing media conspiracy.

As the week draws to a close , a series of national security matters broke through the clutter of the soap opera milieu. First, there was the revelation of a computer virus identified in the hotels in which the Iranian talks were taking place. Experts differed as to whether the virus was Israeli in origin – with all experts in agreement that the virus was so sophisticated that only a major country could have designed it.

Second, as the forces supporting Syrian President Assad were defeated in a number of battles, the cry went out from among Israel's Druze population (a population who has been especially loyal to Israel), to do something to help their Druze brethren in Syria (who had been loyal to Assad). The fear is that if any of the Syrian opposition forces captured the Druze areas they might massacre the Druze, who are considered by mainstream Muslims as heretics.

Finally, last night, a number of Red Alert sirens went off in the southern part of Israel. It seems the alerts were triggered as a result of a failed attack in the Gaza Strip by ISIS against Israel. The ISS strategy seems to be that if they fire missiles at Israel; Israel will respond by attacking Hamas (ISIS’s enemy locally) . Given that Israel can cause much more damage then ISIS, their strategy seems plausible.

In their midst of all the politics and sabre-rattling,Tel Aviv residents were out in the tens of thousands to watch or participate in one one of the largest LGBT Pride parades in the world; part of a week-long festival of Gay pride taking place now in Tel Aviv. The final piece of news of the week was the arrival of the CEO of the French telecommunications firm Orange Stéphane Richard who met with Prime Minister Netanyahu today and said his company would like to invest in Israel.  This was combined with the announcement that Amazon, which only had a small presence in Israel until now was opening up 150 person R&D center this year.